Illini, Groce not looking to compare seasons

Illinois is off to another strong start, but the Illini are hoping similarities to last season end there. Robert Johnson/Icon SMI

Illinois first-year coach John Groce said Monday neither he nor his players have discussed the similarity between this season's 10-0 start and last season's, which was followed by a season-ending collapse.

Last season, Illinois and former coach Bruce Weber opened the year with 10 consecutive wins and moved up to No. 19 in the AP poll. Beginning with a 16-point loss to UNLV in Chicago, the Illini lost 15 of their last 22 games, failed to reach the NCAA tournament and Weber was fired.

On Saturday, Groce and Illini defeated previously ranked No. 10 Gonzaga 85-74 on the road to improve to 10-0. Illinois jumped from No. 13 to No. 10 in the AP poll on Monday and are one of 14 remaining undefeated teams.

"I haven't heard them talking about it," Groce said of comparing the two seasons. "I haven't certainly talked to them about it at this juncture and maybe in large part of it is I wasn't here last year and don't have relevance to that.

"We've tried the best we can to just kind of focus on the 2012-2013 season and leave all of that in the rear view mirror as something we can't control. I haven't heard them talking about it and I haven't."

Despite Groce's reluctance to look back, he does understand what this season's early success has meant to a fan base which has endured its share of frustration in recent seasons.

"I do think it certainly has created an excitement," Groce said. "The biggest thing, I'm happy for, shoot, I'm happy for Illini Nation. I'm happy for the alums. I'm happy for the students on campus. I think they're excited. I'm happy for all the people who support us. I'm glad people like watching our team.

"I do think for the most part our guys play with toughness and togetherness. We're certainly not perfect, but they play hard and they play together. Our chemistry has been good. If I'm someone who just wants to watch basketball, I told our guys I would watch our team play. They embody a lot of those characteristics."

Groce has been careful not to feed his team's ego too much. As good as the Illini were on Saturday, they were just as shaky in a 72-64 win over Western Carolina in their previous game. Illinois also needed a last-second 3-pointer to defeated Gardner-Webb after the Illini returned from winning the Maui Invitational.

After another big win against Gonzaga, Groce is trying to protect his team from a letdown against Norfolk State on Tuesday. Norfolk State is 6-5 this season, but the Spartans did reach the NCAA tournament last season and upset Missouri.

"Now where do we go from here is kind of our theme today," Groce said. "As we get to practice today, we got to be very mature, very humble as we approach tomorrow's game against Norfolk State. The last time we were in this situation where we came off an emotional win or set of wins was in Maui, we came back home, and I don't feel like we played particularly well. So that's our challenge heading into tomorrow's night game against Norfolk State to see how mature we are.

"They're very, very aware of Norfolk State, how athletic they are, their ability and what they did last year. They're aware of that. The reality of it is I think our guys are staring to figure out if they play with toughness and togetherness we can play really, really, really, really good basketball. That gives you a chance about any night. If you don't, then we're not very good."